By G9ija

Tension is rising in Zambia ahead of presidential elections next week, prompting an unprecedented deployment of the military to clamp down on violence.

The August 12 ballot is essentially a two-horse race between longstanding adversaries — President Edgar Lungu, 64, and Hakainde Hichilema, 59, who is making his sixth bid for the top job.

Rival supporters wielding axes and machetes have clashed sporadically since campaigning started in May, resulting in at least three deaths, according to police.

All the fatalities were members of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF).

After two were clubbed to death at the weekend, Lungu sent in the army to help the police maintain “law and order”.

“I have taken this step in order to ensure that the electoral process… is not interfered with,” he said in a statement on Sunday.

But the move sparked concern of heavy-handedness.

“It’s clearly an intimidation technique,” said Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank, told AFP.

“Lungu wants something that can tip the balance in his favour and a heavy military presence is likely to do that.”

Violence has mainly been concentrated around Lusaka, traditionally a Lungu stronghold, and in the Northern and Northwestern provinces — respectively bastions of the PF and the largest opposition group, the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Nicole Beardsworth, a politics lecturer at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, said the race was “exceptionally tight” and more unrest was likely.

Analysts are divided on the poll’s outcome.

Lungu emerged a narrow victor over Hichilema in snap presidential elections in 2015 and in general polls the following year.

But rising food prices and unemployment have fuelled disillusionment with him.

Critics accuse him of splurging on pricey infrastructure projects and plunging the copper-rich country into Africa’s first debt default of the coronavirus era.

“I can’t support thieves, we have suffered because of them,” said Lusaka resident Josephine Nakazwe, 23, selling cellphone credit outside a shopping centre.